Historically, firearms have been used in the United States for hunting food, participating in sport, and defending against predators. However, they can also be used to commit violent acts or to defend against violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), guns are responsible for averages of 36,383 deaths and 100,120 injuries each year in the United States. While 18 percent of gun-related injuries are unintentional, less than 2 percent of gun-related deaths are unintentional. Nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths are self-inflicted, compared to 4 percent of gun-related injuries. Limitations on research have produced data inconsistencies between organizations that study gun violence, which makes creating effective public policy more difficult. For example, the CDC reports that police officers are responsible for an average of 496 gun-related deaths each year, but researchers at the Washington Post have disputed this figure, suggesting the number is much closer to one thousand.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, the United States has increasingly suffered mass violence events in which large groups of people are murdered in public, typically with a firearm, by a single shooter or pair of assailants. Such events have occurred in public schools, restaurants, nightclubs, concerts, religious centers, movie theaters, and other spaces where the victims operate under a reasonable assumption of safety from such violence. Policymakers and the public remain divided on the best ways to prevent these tragedies from occurring without encroaching on individual gun rights.
Gun Violence in the United States
Compared to most other countries, the United States experiences a disproportionately high rate of gun violence. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a project of the University of Washington, reports that the rates of violent gun deaths in the United States in 2016 exceeded many countries. After the IHME removed deaths from armed conflicts, accidents, and suicide from its analysis, the project determined a rate of 3.85 violent gun deaths per 100,000 people in the United States, higher than industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom (0.07) and Japan (0.04), but also developing countries such as Syria (1.17) and Ethiopia (1.97). Rates in parts of Latin America, however, far exceeded US rates, with countries such as El Salvador (40.29) and Venezuela (34.77) experiencing around ten times the amount of gun violence. Determining the root causes of gun violence can be difficult, though several experts have suggested a link between economic factors such as employment rates and average education levels, and the amount of gun violence experienced by a community. However, the IHME determined that if socioeconomic status could be used as a reliable predictor of gun violence, the United States would experience a rate of 0.79 violent gun deaths per 100,000 people, about one-fifth of the actual rate.
Public safety experts have questioned whether any particular characteristics of the United States may make the country more susceptible. Speculations range from the country's history of frontier conquest to the glamorization of gun violence in films and television. Many gun control advocates, however, contend that the United States experiences higher rates of gun violence because gun ownership, and especially ownership of more than one gun, is much higher than in other countries. In 2017 the Small Arms Survey, a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, found that per capita, gun ownership in the United States surpassed every other country with a rate of 120.5 civilian-owned firearms per 100,000 people. The US rate is more than twice that of Yemen (52.8), the country with the second-highest per capita gun ownership. Additionally, the Small Arms Survey estimated that US civilians own 393,347,000, or 46 percent, of the 857,396,100 civilian-owned firearms in the world.
Studying Gun Violence
Part of the difficulty in addressing gun violence comes from the lack of comprehensive data and actionable research. Compared to other public health threats such as tobacco use and automobile accidents, gun violence research does not receive significant levels of government funding. Congress created one of the largest obstacles to performing gun research with the passage of the Dickey Amendment, a provision added to the 1996 annual appropriations bill and renewed each subsequent year. The provision stipulates that federal funds provided to the CDC cannot be used to "advocate or promote gun control." Though the language of the Dickey Amendment forbids the CDC from using federal funds for the purposes of promoting gun control, the amendment does not explicitly ban federal funds being used to research gun violence. However, researchers and policymakers credit the amendment with preventing the allocation of funding for this purpose and discouraging scientists from seeking grants. As a result of the amendment, the CDC must use data from its National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), a surveillance system dependent on available data and individual state reporting, to track gun deaths in the United States. NVDRS data is incomplete, however, receiving data from only 80 percent of states.
In 2012 Congress revisited the issue, extending the funding restrictions to all agencies within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The National Rifle Association (NRA), an influential gun rights advocacy group, has devoted significant resources to the bill's passage and subsequent renewals, providing millions of dollars in campaign contributions to influence policymakers. In 2015, nearly twenty years after the amendment's initial passage, former representative Jay Dickey (R-AR) expressed remorse for authoring the provision, noting that continued research would likely have resulted in more effective policymaking.
Several efforts have been made to reverse the decline in gun violence research caused by the Dickey Amendment. Following the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama issued twenty-three executive actions related to gun violence, including a Presidential Memorandum ordering the CDC to resume its research. Additionally, Obama made thirteen policy proposals to Congress, including a request for $10 million for the CDC to study contributing factors to gun violence, nearly four times the amount allocated for gun violence research annually before the passage of the Dickey Amendment. Though gun control advocates applauded Obama's recommendations, Republican lawmakers and gun rights enthusiasts characterized such measures as unconstitutional and their proposal evidence of executive overreach.
In March 2018, Congress passed a spending bill that sought to clarify the amendment's restrictions. The decision to revisit the amendment was largely motivated by the mass shooting one month earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which fourteen students and three staff members died. Though the amendment remained in the bill as originally written in 1996, the new bill contained language allowing the CDC to conduct research into gun violence if the agency did not use federal funds. Health care providers and medical researchers, however, expressed little optimism that the changes would result in further research, noting that the lack of funding and pattern of self-censorship would likely continue under these terms.
The Impact of Gun Violence
The most immediate effects of gun violence are death and injury experienced by the victims. The impact of such violence, however, can extend beyond the victims. Families and communities mourning the loss of life and coping with the anxieties of living under threat of further violence, for example, often require mental health services. In 2015 journalists from Mother Jones worked with gun violence expert Ted Miller from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation to determine the financial costs of gun violence. Their study determined that gun violence creates direct costs to taxpayers of approximately $8.6 billion annually. The largest portion of this cost, about $5.2 billion, covers the long-term costs of incarcerating individuals who engage in criminal gun violence. In addition to these direct costs, researchers determined an additional $221 billion in indirect costs, which includes lost wages and impact on quality of life as determined by jury awards in victim lawsuits. The researchers note that the combined cost of almost $230 billion annually should be considered a conservative estimate as their methodology assigned human life a relatively low monetary value of $6.2 million compared to similar studies, such as those conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency that use a value of $7.9 million and those conducted by the US Department of Transportation that use a value of $9.2 million. Additionally, the cost does not account for all costs associated with gun violence, such as security enhancements made to schools following mass shootings.
People react to gun violence in different ways. Following mass violence events, proponents of gun control often propose new legislation in the hopes of preventing future tragedies. Alternatively, gun rights enthusiasts often respond by purchasing more guns, fearful of any new laws that might restrict access to guns. School shootings have frequently led to debates among activists, policymakers, and pundits about the best way to protect students, including proposals to provide firearms and training to teachers and other school officials. Inventive entrepreneurs have sought to capitalize on school shooting anxieties by offering a wide array of products, including bulletproof backpacks, metal detectors, and ballistic shelters. Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students organized a countrywide school walkout as well as the March for Our Lives, a national protest in Washington, DC.
Many gun control advocates have expressed disappointment with the inability or unwillingness of elected officials to enact legislation to reduce gun violence. The lax enforcement of existing laws has also led to frustration among activists. In February 2019 state and federal agents arrested gun control supporter Jaydin Ledford for posting threats against his local police on social media in response to news that sheriffs in the state of Washington would not be enforcing newly enacted gun control legislation. The social media posts included explicit threats of gun violence against named members of law enforcement, which several media outlets characterized as ironic considering the nature of his cause.